Managing Anxiety with Pratipaksha Bhavana

23 June 2013

Soon after we begin to practice yoga we find it offers us many tools and techniques for managing anxiety. One particular yogic technique comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and it is called “pratipaksha.”  One translation of Sutra 1.33…

“When presented with disquieting thoughts or feelings,
cultivate an opposite (positive), elevated attitude.
This is Pratipaksha Bhavana.”

Literally millions of Americans end up in therapy or on antidepressants, usually leaving them less aware of their negativities but also less aware of life in general. They are still out of balance, still aggravated and/or suffering, and now they may be doped up as well. They might not feel their inner pain as acutely, but it is still there, although it’s hidden or covered up.

Pratipaksha is the practice of becoming fully aware of harmful or injurious thoughts and then choosing healthier, more uplifting thoughts as an alternative. In today’s contemporary jargon this is also known as choosing a “downstream thought”, one that creates happiness within you, instead of an “upstream thought” that causes pain, guilt, stress or anxiety. Remember the popular children’s rhyme; “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream?”

Practicing pratipaksha may be as simple as noticing the beauty of rainbow after a thunderstorm, instead of fretting about that spouting that still needs to be unclogged. In other words, you view the glass as being half-full instead of half-empty.

“The opposite of hate is not love. The opposite of hate is non-hate. Letting go, releasing of that hate.  Then, love naturally arises.

This simple but powerful technique has a profoundly healing effect on Yoga students and practitioners, especially those who may be struggling with self-defeating thoughts and beliefs that create negative or unsettling feelings. As we continue to gently steer our minds away from repetitive thoughts that create anxious feelings and instead focus our minds on more positive, realistic and uplifting thoughts, we are literally reprogramming the neurotransmitters in our brains. The neuroplasticity (capacity to develop new neuronal connections) of our brains allows us to permanently change our thinking patterns when we practice pratipaksha with earnest awareness and effort. Whenever we change our negative thought patterns and beliefs about both ourselves and the world at large, our behaviors will automatically change, and in time, this will change our karma.

The practice of pratipaksha is not simply about substituting a positive thought for the opposite negative thought or belief, it is also about choosing life-affirming thoughts that soothe, nourish and uplift. It’s a change in the direction your thinking takes and you must believe the thought is true or is able to become true, it’s also important that find the thought nourishing. If the upstream thought that you choose to empower does not soothe your spirit or if your mind has doubts, your practice will not be as effective.

Practicing pratipaksha isn’t rocket science, it’s easy, simple to comprehend and anyone can do it, but first they must put forth some effort and give it a try. Next time you feel anxious or unsettled, gently pull your attention away from the disquieting thoughts and direct your mind towards positive (or opposite) thoughts, even if it is something as simple as appreciating the radiant light of that colorful rainbow.

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